Quora and the Motivations behind its Top Writers Program

Quora announced today that they’re starting a new program to effectively recognize top contributors to the site over the past year or two, the latest (but the most explicit) in a number of steps to try to encourage quality in content. Whereas upvotes and credits-driven answers are shaped in some way by a reflection of the community and the underlying counting algorithm, this list is manually curated by the Quora admins themselves.

Here’s that list1.

Now, a lot of the initial reaction seems to be gratitude and humility for those nominated, which is the socially acceptable and reflexive attitude to take; after all, most of us aren’t famous (internet or otherwise), and Quora has built its name on keeping the site high above the Yahoo Answers of the world. There is also a healthy amount of skepticism and concern that this is the beginnings of a caste system in the community that makes it even less friendly to get started.

Being the product engineer that I am, my thoughts followed that same trajectory, then took a sharp left turn to wonder why the Quora product team felt it necessary to build this program. Commissioning art (and T-shirts), manually going through and finding and maintaining a set of top users, and setting up pages to deal with the Top Writers program obviously took some thinking, effort and coordination2, so I can only assume it’s aimed tackle the tricky problem of content quality from an orthogonal dimension than the aforementioned voting and credits systems.

So what are the attributes that make it different than a straight voting system (a la Reddit karma, Diggs, Facebook likes, etc.) or a credited earn-spend framework (a la some multiplayer games)?
Well, the list is manually chosen, which means that it avoids, to some extent, the ickiness of relying on an evolving algorithm as an arbitrator of quality. Having the right weights on the right factors for relevance and impact is a hard, hard problem (just ask Google), and manually scrubbing from a list of candidates – likely populated by a simple database query from a small list of criteria – is still manageable.

For the community managers, picking from a sample “good” authors and subsequently “good” answers lets them set the tone of the site, especially if getting into the Top Writers circle is seen to hold some cachet. At minimum it’s a multiplier effect on posts with a ton of upvotes and their writers; if used carefully, it’s a subtle way to discourage undesirable-but-popular behavior.

Of course, by refreshing the list annually (as opposed to some Hall of Fame archival system), this forces the writers on the list to continue producing good content for Quora. Whereas number systems have to deal with vote/credit inflation, Top Writers bifurcates the community and sets an explicit goal for Quora members: do good enough and you’ll be included. There is, at least for now, a healthy glow of brand evangelism among those chosen, and I’d imagine the T-shirts and meetup sponsorships play into making Quora Top Writers strong advocates of the site and the community.

I had written about the decline of Quora over a year ago, and while many of the same problems persist, that I still visit the site proves that even down from its zenith, quality content is still valuable and worth the time3.

  1. I made it, I suspect barely.

  2. Though I’ll guess that the amount of design and engineering was pretty minimal.

  3. Conversely, maybe it’s just that not much on the internet can claim to be worth any time.

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Comments 2
  1. I think the somewhat randomness of it all, and the surprise makes it more engaging than ‘elite’ personally. I’ve read a lot of out-cry over the previous two days, about it creating some kind of niche elitism. Overall, without a ‘set-in-stone-criteria’ or particular ‘end-date’ in mind, no ‘voting system’ in place, they can make the reward a surprising treat at random. It hasn’t really changed my involvement on Quora…
    However, I hope they don’t get too entrenched in some kind of ‘annual traditional’ and every October 30th from now on, they’ll announce the top-writers of the last year. There is something magical about not knowing about the program or a possible reward and intrinsically wanting to write good content regardless.
    I don’t know about you, but it was a surprise for me, and that was the cool part.

    1. Yea, it was a surprise for me too. That said, it’s easy to be appreciative when you’re in the program, but its creation does split the community and I’m always curious about both sides. I’m guessing that how they manage the program from here on out will change before the next year comes around, and that they’ll learn from our current reactions and interactions.

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